Ink-Dipped Advice: What Does Your Client Want?

 

This is the central question when you’re doing marketing writing or blogging or any type of work for your freelance clients.

In initial meetings, when you decided if you wanted to work together, you hopefully discussed goals and vision. Your contract should define the parameters. Now, you can get into specifics.

For a client, the next question I have is, “Who do you see as your target market?”

Because sometimes who we/they “see” as the target market isn’t necessarily the best/lucrative/realistic market. Sometimes there’s value in targeting them anyway and expanding the market. Sometimes the desired target is so far from the reality of what will appeal, that there has to be some discussion and consideration. Desiring to sell dog food to cat owners is not going to grow your business.

Stretching and expanding is great. Casting a wide net is great. But spending money in a completely wrong direction is not worth it.

Far too often, the answer is “everyone.”

Well, yes, we live in an information age. Hopefully, we can restore Net Neutrality, and get more information (and education) available to everyone.

But “everyone” is not the right target.

Who is the ideal audience?

Novelists, playwrights, diarists, bloggers, etc. often write for a specific “someone” as their “ideal” audience, even if they can’t actually give height, weight, eye color, hair color, name, etc.

When you create a marketing campaign, or are part of a team that executes one, you need to have that “ideal audience” defined.

If you work for an organization that puts on a variety of programs, the target for each may be a little difference. You want your regular attendees to feel welcomed and included, so that they look forward to returning, time and time again, and having a fresh, fun time each visit.

You also want to expand the audience — place the materials in spots so people who are interested in this type of information will come across it and get interested.

How do you do that?

Listen
We’re back to that whole listening thing we talked about last week. Listening to your client is the most important skill you have.

Listen not just to the words, but to the subtext. What’s not being said? Is there a contradiction? Why? What’s the meaning under the words? What does the body language indicate?

Ask Questions
Ask questions, get clarifications, go deeper.

Asking questions doesn’t mean you don’t know what you’re doing. It means you’re interviewing the client and digging deeper for context and depth.

Match Message to Platform
I do not agree with the often-quoted marketing advice that the same information must be on every platform and it all has to match.

The tone and the message need to be consistent. But different platforms serve different types or portions of information better.

Facebook is different from Twitter is different from Instagram is different from Tumblr is different from Ello is different from Vero is different from Dots is different from MySpace and so on and so forth.

What is the strength of each platform? What is the weakness? Use each to its best, and slot in your information in a way that works best for the platform. Yes, if you have event information that needs to be disbursed across all platforms. But as someone who uses multiple platforms, when I see ONLY the same information on each one, I resent it. To me, it means there’s an information blanket being thrown over everything, and no individuality involved.

On a social media platform, if there’s no engagement, no response when I share or comment on something, I move on pretty darn fast.

Business has de-personalized so much, to the point of not signing legal documents, because it’s easier to hurt people when you stop thinking of them as “people.” Government is doing the same. It’s part of the reason we’re in the mess we’re in, on multiple levels. De-humanizing and de-individualizing in order to make higher profit.

The way small and medium-sized businesses and organizations can compete is by re-personalizing.

When the client gets that, and is willing to pay for the time it takes to do that, the client will see an increase in profit. It grows more slowly, but it happens.

We’ll get more into de-personalizing and re-personalizing next week.

Other messages are better shared through blog posts or articles or advertorials or media kits or web content. Match your message — or the portion of your message — to the best platform.

Message Expansion Takes Time & Resources
You need the time to come up with the message and create the materials. That means uninterrupted work time, not answering the phone or sending out invoices or doing the ten other things too many small businesses try to foist on you when you sign on. (Make sure your contract defines your parameters).

You need the time to post things, or schedule things to post. I use Hootsuite when I want to schedule posts on multiple platforms, Twuffer to focus on Twitter. I like the way Twuffer pushes photos to Twitter.

Quick response time is key, especially on social media. You need engagement. It’s not about posting and expecting audience growth. You post, there’s a response, there’s engagement, it’s shared, there’s more engagement and so forth and so on.

This takes time. When you’re building a social media presence for a business, you’re not screwing around on social media. Don’t apologize or try to minimize the time or the level of engagement necessary to make it work. Don’t sell yourself short.

Be Prepared to Change Direction
Your client might decide that’s not really the message they want out there; or that it’s taking too long to pay off.

The latter is the hardest to work with. Because so much on social media is instant, clients often don’t understand that it takes months to engage and build an audience. Months of daily interaction. Try to set realistic goals for growth at the beginning. Included engagement goals. Not just getting more followers, but the amount of interactions/the quality of those interactions. Then try to exceed those goals wherever possible.

Keep Communitcating with Your Client
It’s not just about what’s working. It’s also about what’s not hitting the mark, and what might need tweaking.

Communicate, communicate, communicate. Listen, listen, listen.

Communication and being sensitive to your client’s needs and desires is key to making it work in the materials and in the office.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Crafting Client Voice

“Voice” is a term that is used in writing to denote that special way an author puts together words in order to resonate with a reader.

Authorial voice is something some writers struggle to find and then hone for years. It is something that makes a reader recognize it’s you and not one of your ten thousand colleagues within the first paragraph.

However, when you stretch yourself to marketing writing for others, it’s not about YOUR voice. It’s about your client voice. That brings with it special challenges.

First, whose voice is the client voice? Is it the person who hired you? Or the person who owns the company? Or the person who runs the company? Or has this particular company created a character that’s the face of the company that needs a voice? Or is it a combination?

When you come in to work on marketing materials, one of the most important questions to ask early on is “Who is the voice of the company?” Not “what” but “who.”

Far too often, marketing materials miss because there is no cohesive voice. Even if it’s a collaborative or a co-operative, and different voices are featured, there needs to be a single, unified voice that represents the company.

Part of your job as a writer for that company is finding that voice and then developing it.

This is where my theatre training comes in. Because I know how to create characters, both on the page and with actors, I can work with the decision-makers in the company to create a voice and then use it consistently across the different types of channels — press releases, social media posts, websites, etc.

It can be a challenge when there are too many voices (often with egos attached), and you have to both combine them and distill them to create a distinctive voice. It can be a challenge when you’re working with a small business owner who is still trying to find the voice and wants their own personality to be the voice.

Handling their egos in this is a delicate matter. We all deserve basic human dignity and respect. But many people aren’t as interesting to a vast audience as they think they are. So they need help developing a business voice that is individually “them” but also better. It’s the Best Self, the most polished and professional and witty and funny and incisive self that also engages an expanding audience and interests that audience in whatever the business needs to promote/sell/serve to stay in business.

The first step in this is to genuinely LISTEN. Out of the first ten thousand words of what the client thinks they want, you might find 20 that are useful.

For me, it is use-LESS to have these conversations on the phone. In general, I find the phone a waste of time, money, and creative energy. I’ve never had a business phone conversation of more than 90 seconds that had value.

The conversations that develop voice need to happen in person or via video conferencing. The person’s tone, the facial expressions, the body language, the light in the eyes, the places they smile, what they find amusing — all of this is vital for the writer to craft the character and voice that will represent the brand. You enhance what works, you recede what doesn’t.

You create a character and a style that effectively communicates the message and expands the audience.

That has NOTHING to do with slathering photographs of the business owner and workers all over the place. In my opinion, selfies do more harm than good in business. It doesn’t “personalize” the business or product; it dilutes it.

Having a spokesperson is different — those photos are done in designated shoots with a specific purpose in mind. The spokesperson is chosen for the ability to promote a specific look and voice that the decision-makers believe best represents them.

If the business wants headshots of specific individuals or a page on the website of workers happily going about their day — great. But there’s a time and place for those types of photos, and it’s not a daily social media post.

The exception to that could be a service organization — but then you need to get signed releases from everyone you photograph. Someone coming into your space is not automatic permission to be photographed and shared publicly. People get to decide where and how their likenesses are used.

If you try to force them, you will lose them.

You want to capture the speaker’s natural rhythm and cadence; at the same time, you enhance it, strengthening sentence structure and word choice, cutting out the boring bits, the qualifiers, the passive. You do this while retaining the speaker’s cadence.

When I write a speech for someone else, when I do it well, the speaker sounds as though speaking off the cuff – even though we spent hours honing it and rehearsing it. Once we researched it.

Yes, as the writer, when I write something that will be spoken live and/or taped, I’m the one who rehearses the speaker. Part of that is my theatre training. Part of that is that I can rewrite and make necessary changes in the rehearsal process so that it sounds even better and more natural.

Because I LISTEN. I listen as the writer, but I also listen as the audience. I work on multiple levels simultaneously, because the material I create must work on the audience on multiple levels.

So talk, listen, create a voice, and work with those who are the face of the company (speaking engagements, chamber events, trade shows, etc.) so they speak in a similar cadence to the marketing materials. Yes, they are themselves. But when they represent their company, they have to align themselves with the company voice.

Even with a small company, it’s a lot of moving parts. It takes thought, planning, creativity. But most important, you need to listen. You need to understand subtext. You need to be able to shear away the words, gestures, and quirks that dilute the message and focus it in a way that’s easy to speak and easy to hear.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Handling Work While Sick

 

I decided to write about this topic on this particular week, because I’ve been sick the last couple of weeks, which has meant rearranging some of my workload. I talk about the guilt involved whenever I get sick on the January 21st Ink in My Coffee post, and how that doesn’t do anyone any good.

But here, today, I’m talking about steps to handle the workload during an illness. Please feel free to leave your suggestions and techniques in the comments.

Communicate
For me, that is the most important tool in handling work at any point. But, when I know I’m getting sick, or am sick, clear communication is the key. If I’m expected on site for something and I’m sick, I let them know as far ahead as possible to reschedule it, or change it to be remote work.

There are times when you get hit with something overnight and can’t let the client know until the last minute, but, for instance, if I have a bad cold with a hacking cough and can’t talk, I let them know that I’m not coming in to spread germs and cause tension in the workplace a day or so ahead.

I give myself a realistic time to get well and reschedule beyond that. Whatever can be done remotely before that time, I will do, but I try not to book remote work to do while I’m still sick. I won’t get better if I spend “sick time” sitting up at the computer frantically trying to get things done.

Build Breathing Room into the Original Schedule
Procrastination is something many writers contend with. For some writers, the tighter the deadline, the higher the adrenaline, and that’s how they prefer to work.

But if you get sick right before a deadline, it can come back and bite you in the butt.

I try to plan out my workload so that nothing is loaded too close to a deadline. There are plenty of times when I don’t send it until the deadline or a day or two before, but I often have it finished ahead of time, and do a final once-over before the send.

This way, I’m not scrambling right before a deadline. AND, if I get sick, it’s already ready to go when it needs to be out.

Building in breathing room. It always keeps the pressure off, and you’ll especially find it useful when you get sick.

Know When to Ask for Help
If you’re down for a long time, and you’re worried about losing the gig, talk to your client and ask if you can bring on someone else of your choosing to help with the project. Hopefully, we’ve built a network of fellow freelancers we trust. We can either work together, or hand off the project, depending on the needs of both client and writers.

Tell the Client About Scheduled Procedures
If you’ve got a surgery and recovery time scheduled during a project, be upfront about it. Let the client know how much you can realistically work ahead on the project — provided they deliver what they need to on their end on time. Let them know what you believe is a reasonable schedule to resume after your recovery time. If possible, build it into the contract.

If you have an accident or something unexpected that requires surgery/recovery time, etc., let the client know as soon as possible and work out a new schedule.

In some cases, you might lose a gig. But being upfront shows you have integrity. If you know you’re having surgery and need recovery time, but don’t mention it in early discussions, and then run into a problem during that time, you’re breaking the client’s trust.

I am not someone who believes it is easier to beg forgiveness after the fact than ask permission. If I find out someone didn’t ask permission/communicate when they knew something important ahead of time, I know that THEY knew I would refuse. It shows a lack of respect. I don’t forgive. I’m done.

Retain a Professional Look If You Skype
While you’re sick, you might be talked into participating in a virtual meeting on a project via Skype. While sitting there in your pajamas with your hair a mess and wadded up tissues next to your half-empty bowl of soup “proves” you’re too sick to come in, it’s not going to help with the meeting.

Remember you can say no to the meeting, that you’re not feeling up to it.

If you say you’ll do it, shower, brush your hair. Even if you wear more casual clothes than you would in person, make the effort to look professional.

Shower Anyway
Yeah, when we feel sick, the thought of taking a shower is often overwhelming. But I always make myself do it, adding eucalyptus and other scented tablets to the shower to feel better. It makes a huge difference to climb back into bed clean.

I also have “day pajamas” and “night pajamas” when I’m sick. Especially when I’m absolutely miserable, I haul myself into the shower and then put on clean “day pajamas.”

I am, however, someone who does not work in pajamas. Even when I work remotely, without Skype, working in pajamas does not work for me. I don’t dress up, but I do get dressed in what I call my “writing clothes” which are casual, but lets my subconscious know I’m ready to work.

Yes, there are writers who love working in their pajamas. Good for them. It doesn’t work for me. Pajamas tell my subconscious to go to sleep, not be creative.

If You Work, Be Quiet About It
You may feel well enough for an hour or two to do some work on something. Do it and save it and look at it again when you’re better. Don’t send it off to prove you’re really “not that sick” or that you’re staying on top of things. I make more mistakes when I’m not feeling well. That extra proofread when I’m healthier makes a big difference.

I find that I can often create when I’m lying in bed, half-dozing. I keep a pad of paper or notebook by the bed and take notes.

But I don’t do much with them until I’m coherent again.

Also, if you get into the habit of delivering work from your sickbed, it will become the expectation. Do everyone a favor and hold onto it.

Take the Time to Get Well
That’s one of the most important parts of it. If you push too hard too soon, you’ll get sick again and be out longer. If you can take time early in the cycle and get well, do so.

If you need to tell the client, “I’m sick, I’ll be out of touch for three days,” do it. Turn off your phone. Don’t return calls. Check your emails once a day if you feel you have to, but you don’t have to respond.

How many clients have you had where they drag their feet on what they’re set to deliver, but the minute you’re out of touch, they need an instant response? There’s very little that’s so important.

Remember the old adage “Your disorganization does not constitute my emergency.”

Hopefully, you’ve built some safety valves into your contract for the above.

But when you’re sick, take time. Sleep. Eat properly. Watch and read whatever you want. Rest. Get well.

Because once you’re well, you’ll be more productive, and that serves everyone better.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Navigating the Holidays

 

We’re into the holiday madness now. Of course, I consider the “Holiday Season” to be October 31-January 6, but there you have it.

How can you balance all the extra demands on your time with the extra demands on your freelance time?

Planning.

This is the time of year when your family and friends need –and deserve — more attention.

This is the time of year when your clients are worried about year-end campaigns and planning for next year.

This is the time of year when you need to start planning where you want to expand and enlarge your own reach next year.

As far as pitching to agents, editors, etc. in fiction markets, unless I have a set deadline, I do not pitch projects between December 12 and January 6. It’s just not fair. As tempted as I am to get things off my desk and onto someone else’s, it gets buried with everyone else doing the same thing.

I do research markets and prep proposals during that time (when I can), but I don’t start submitting again until January 6.

Here are some other tips that work for me:

Calendars
Your calendar is always your best tool, but especially during the holidays. I like to use the large desk blotter calendars. I have yet to have an electronic calendar that hasn’t failed me.

I put different elements in different colors. I work backwards from deadlines, break down projects, card writing, baking, etc., into workable chunks, and put them on the calendar.

This way, I can look up from my desk and keep track of what’s going on, and where I am at any particular point. I can also adjust, if necessary. I can get ahead if and when I ever find a pocket of time; I know if I’ve fallen behind, and can add in additional work sessions as needed.

Cards
I am a huge believer in old-school cards, especially around the holidays. It’s a way to stay connected to current contacts, and reconnect with those with whom you’ve lost touch.

If I use a holiday card to reconnect, that’s what it is — a reconnection. Not a request or demand for anything. But a simple well-wish.

For those with whom I reconnect, I usually send off an email or a postcard after January 6, asking where they are and what’s going on, if they need anything, if they’d like to set up an appointment. I do NOT add that in to the holiday greeting. I keep it separate.

By the way, post card contact usually gets me a 25% response rate, whereas email only gets 12%.

Assessments
I keep track of my Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions on a monthly basis (daily To Do lists make me feel trapped). I spend a couple of months at the end of each year assessing and making plans for the following year.

How much do you NEED to earn to pay your bills, keep a roof over your head, keep a quality of life?

How much do you WANT to earn for the extras?

How do you plan to get to both of those numbers?

I write, daydream, plan, strategize, and come up with what I think and hope will work for the coming year. I post it at the beginning of the year, and track it.

I also remain flexible enough for new opportunities to come in, and to drop what doesn’t work.

I assess and reassess every month. My GDRs are a roadmap, not a prison.

Market Lists
Once I assess where I am, where I want to be, and how to get there, I research markets and/or clients. I start putting together pitches, packets and LOIs. My goal is always to send out at least three LOIs a week; I don’t always meet it. When I’m deep in client work, I often let it go, which is the wrong thing to do.

When you’re deep in work is the best time to seek other work. The energy of your current work will spill into your LOI and make you more attractive to future customers.

This past year, I pitched fewer articles. I miss article writing. So in the coming weeks, I will research article markets, prepare pitch packets per their guidelines and editorial calendars, and have them ready to go at the turn of the year. If I see a call that’s got a deadline during the season, yes, I send it. But, for the most part, I wait until January, when everyone’s ready to get back to work, and to build a new slate of projects.

I hunt down reputable listings (in other words, people who vet them as paying a fair wage, such as Jenn Mattern’s All Freelance Writing). I always read the online guidelines before submitting, because guidelines change as editorial needs change.

Most important — I FOLLOW the guidelines. An acquisitions editor I know says 85% of the pitches she receives are tossed because the writer didn’t follow guidelines. Guidelines are the first test to see if you are someone with whom the publication wants to work. Are you worth their time and energy? Because if you can’t be bothered to pitch within guidelines, there are 10,000 other writers lined up behind you who are just as talented as you are who can. One of them will get the job.

My favorite way to create pitch lists is to sit down with the most recent print edition of WRITER’S MARKET, a pad of paper and a pen, and take notes. I read through the listings of any publication for which I think I could write. I make notes. I then check the guidelines ONLINE before I send the pitch.

Working only online, within search criteria, limits me. Reading through the entire book, with all the different publications, opens me to new-to-me publications that wouldn’t turn up in narrow search criteria.

The Personal Strategic Plan
Organizations create strategic plans to forward their growth and agenda. There’s no reason an individual can’t do the same.

It’s a little different than the Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, while enveloping them.

In the GDRs, I list three practical steps to turn each goal, dream, and resolution into a reality.

The Personal Strategic Plan can go into even more detail.

The trap in going into too much detail is that you build yourself a prison. Workable steps are necessary. Too many details can keep you from noticing and seizing opportunities that could take you farther than your original ideas.

At the same time, you don’t want to pursue every new, shiny idea and abandon your plan completely.

You need balance and common sense.

Build in Fun
Between shopping, working, cooking, assessing, planning, wrapping things up, starting down new roads — you need to have fun. That’s what holidays are about — joy.

What gives you joy?

Think of the time from now through the holidays as “Days of Joy.”

Every day, do one thing that gives you joy, no matter how small.

Watch the positive ripple effect in the rest of your life.

Then, remember to build in the fun into your Goals, Dreams, and Resolutions, and into your Personal Strategic Plan.

We are freelancers in order to create our best lives, not live it for someone else’s convenience.

Ink-Dipped Advice: Word Choice Matters — and Has Power

I had an interesting conversation with a client the other day. She shared that she parted ways with her previous marketing/social media person because that individual did not work with her to communicate the client’s message effectively.

Ms. Marketing Pro came in with the attitude that she knew everything and the client knew nothing. She set up a series of social media channels, used marketing buzzwords, spread identical content on all the channels, but didn’t communicate the message or the product that my client sells. When my client wanted a particular type of promotion set up, or a particular message communicated, she was told that she didn’t know what she was doing, and to leave it to the professionals.

My client was paying; the business did not grow. They parted ways.

When I started working with her last year, I tweaked the message for each content platform, aiming to use the strength and identity of each platform to its best reach. In one month, I expanded the social media reach by 86%, resulting in a 26% sales bump.

I know, as a consumer, there are certain buzzwords that turn me off. If I see something listed as a “boot camp” or a “hack” — no, thanks. I’m not interested in that. Nor do I promote my own work using those phrases. At this point, they are overused and meaningless. Plus, the choice of those terms does not effectively communicate what I want to say to people. It doesn’t give them any information about what makes my work unique.

Also, if a business has marketing materials out there that show a lack of discernment between possessive/plural/contraction, as a potential customer, I assume they’re too stupid to be worth my money, and I go somewhere else.

No, I don’t approach them and tell them their materials are full of errors and they should hire me. That would guarantee they wouldn’t. But when I meet them at a networking event, I give them my card and say, “If you’re looking to freshen up your marketing at any point, I’d like to work with you.”

As a marketing person, I have an arsenal of tools I use to spread a message, that includes web content, media kits, blogging, social media content, press releases, ad creation on multiple channels, PSAs or radio spots as appropriate, pitching articles to the media, and, again, if appropriate, event scripting or video scripting.

Not every client wants or needs all these tools.

I offer them, but I don’t tell them they “have” to use them. We work together to find the best tools to communicate the message.

One of the most important thing I can do, as a marketing person, is genuinely listen when they tell me about their business, why they’re passionate about it, and what it means to them.

By listening and getting to know who they are AS WELL AS what they want, I can help them craft their story, their message, and expand their reach in a way that is unique to their business. Sometimes that does what I call “drawing the ear” — which, to me, is as important as drawing the eye.

Sure, you want strong visuals, and you need to work with a great graphic designer.

But you also need to choose the right words to communicate your message in a way that engages rather than attacks.

When someone hard sells at me, when I feel attacked or as though my space is invaded — be it physically or emotionally — I shut down. If I’m really uncomfortable, I fight back. What I don’t do is spend money with someone who makes me feel bad.

It’s often the same societal structures that cause problems when they are transformed into sales pitches. For the women reading this, how often has a male salesperson used the tactic of invading your personal space, of patronizing you, of treating you as though you should “listen to the man” in order to part you from your money? Or how often has a female salesperson used negative language to make you feel bad about something personal, and tried to convince you that only by listening to her and buying the product, can you feel better and will you change others’ negative perceptions of you (which exist in her mind, and which she tries to plant in your mind).

At this point in my life, when someone is aggressive towards me, I push back. Hard, without filters. As a potential customer, I tell them exactly why I’m not buying what they’re selling.

As a marketing person trying to shape the message, I do my best to:

–listen to the client
–offer suggestions to shape the message for different platforms
–communicate the message in a way for a positive reception by the target audience
–offer options and a variety of strategies, so if one thing doesn’t bring return, we have something else ready to launch

That means choosing words with care.

Just because a marketing Pooh-bah says this is “the” way to present something doesn’t mean it is.

Wanting to cast a wide net doesn’t mean use bland language. If anything, you need to be more specific in word choices.

You want to create a positive, sensory response. So choose words to evoke positive sensations.

Sight, sound, taste, touch, smell.

The five senses evoke emotions.

What kind of emotions do you want to evoke in your audience?

Taste and smell are closely related, as are sight and touch (or texture).

Use active language — verbs rather than adverbs, and avoid passive or past perfect as much as possible. “have been eating” is weaker than “eat” or “ate.”

Use specific adjectives and avoid overused tropes. If someone tells me it’s a “bold” wine, it means little to me, other than I expect a vinegary aftertaste. If they tell me it’s a “deep red with plum, cherry, and chocolate tones” — now I have sight, texture, taste, and scent cues. Not only that, but I expect a deeper sound when it pours into the glass.

My favorite medium is radio. One of the reasons I love to work on radio dramas or radio spots is that I choose specific sounds to drive the story and character. I love that challenge because the more specific I am, the better I communicate with the audience.

Individuals will receive the specifics within their own frame of reference. You won’t please everyone. An individual may have a negative association with a specific detail you and your client choose.

In my experience, I’ve found that those are rare, and more people will respond positively to compelling sensory detail than to vague marketspeak. Overused marketing terms always makes me feel like the seller is trying to get my money for snake oil, and I’d rather put my money elsewhere.

More and more people are practicing conscientious consumerism, choosing where and how they shop to align with their values. I think that’s great. I want people who align their wallets and their ethics to connect with my clients.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who reads this to try, be they a marketing person, a business owner, a consumer: For one week, only speak and write in specifics. Remove vague language from all your interactions. Keep track of it.

You will notice a remarkable difference in the level of communication.

What are your favorite ways to choose the best language when you work with clients, or as you communicate your business?

Ink-Dipped Advice: Event Participation

 

I recently worked, with one of my clients, on an event night. She was one of multiple vendors participating in an evening by a “media group” that promised shopping, drinks, food, and entertainment to those buying tickets.

The event itself would run for three hours in the evening; the setup was four hours in the afternoon immediately prior. The vendor fee got us booth space, and listing in the event’s media, dinner for the two of us working the event, and an additional ad in the organizer’s media conglomerate.  We had to pay an additional fee for an electrical tie-in. We were asked to supply 600 of an item for the swag bags, and one item to raffle off.

As a writer, my usual part in that would have been to amplify the media, using our own channels to spread the word via blog posts, social media, email blasts, etc., which I did. My client asked me to work the event with her, and I agreed, even though it’s not technically part of the writing I do for her.

It puzzled me why people would pay a fee to shop, but, going in to this holiday season, that’s the big trend in my area. I’ve counted more than a dozen similar events coming up.

It’s all material, and I figured that I’d learn something from the experience.

The contract was pretty clear and straightforward. This is what they expect; this is what they provide. Should have been a breeze, right? There’s a contract. It’s all spelled out, in black and white. It’s signed. It’s paid for, in advance.

Even during the prep, there were warning signs. Every time we had a question, we were passed to a different member of this “media group.” They kept changing the parameters of the raffle. We were excluded from one of the entertainment events that was specific to the business, supposedly because my client “showed no interest in the initial conversation.” When my client says it never came up in the initial conversation, I believe my client over this “media group.” She’s sharp, and it was something we would have discussed.

We spent some time deciding what to bring, and we did a dry run of the booth set up at our facility.

We arrived at the facility in the afternoon, only a few minutes past the set-up start time. We were in a shabby, badly lit “ballroom” whose carpet was threadbare and stained. The so-called “booths” were rows of tables set back-to back, with aisles in between. Not that they were even finished setting up, even though event staff had all morning so to do. We were in the back corner, facing away from the rest of the facility and the entertainment, facing the loading dock.

We moved out their table, and set up our own displays, staying within our designated space. We’d also brought our own lighting (thank goodness, because the overhead fluorescents weren’t doing anybody any favors).

No thought had been given to the curation of vendors. It was higgedly-piggedly. An investment firm was the booth backing us; an accountant was beside us. That, too, puzzled me. Why where they at a shopping event? Other than they had mountains of logo swag to give away? There were also several “vendors” who were inappropriate to an event with alcohol and shopping, in my opinion.

In other words, instead of being a curated event, the organizers were happy to take money from anyone who wanted to pay.

I asked about the details of the meal, and the response was, “oh, the food will be set up in a back room during the event. Just go grab a plate however long there’s still food and bring it back to your booth.”

Wait, what?

Since when does only feeding people until you “run out of food” constitute “providing dinner” as specified in the contract? And since when is stuffing one’s face in front of customers professional behavior?

Instead of lanyards or name tags for vendors, they stamped our hands. So now we’re at a middle school dance?

 We took a break (I used it to eat at home, as well as change).

I got back to the venue about a half hour before the doors opened, to get last minute tweaks done and get settled. Only they’d already started letting people in. No security. Nothing. We were lucky our booth hadn’t been stripped.

When the event officially “started,” they dimmed the overhead lights, put on rotating red, green, and yellow disco lights. Also, they’d set up one of the speakers beside our booth space, which meant we had difficulty talking to each other or to customers.

When we asked them to turn down the speaker a bit, they turned it up instead.

When it was time for the raffle, I approached one of the organizers and asked when I should give the information to the DJ to announce it. She said, “Oh, you just have to call back everyone who’s put in a ticket to your booth and announce it in a loud voice there. He’s not doing it. He HAS a script already.”

Say what? 

Granted, the raffle parameters had changed four times in the preceding four weeks. But that was NEVER one of the options.

So I hunted down the DJ myself, explained there had been some confusion about the raffle, and could I impose on him to announce our winner?

He was delighted so to do. In fact, he was the only person at the entire event who was lovely to deal with.

We got plenty of compliments on our set up; we also heard from attendees that it was both better than last year’s event (the thought of that makes me shudder) and that they were frustrated because it had been advertised as drinks being part of the ticket price, but instead it was a cash bar. Not only was it a cash bar, but it only accepted CASH, not credit or debit cards.

I have been to other events at this facility. They insist on events only using their kitchen and their liquor. Which is why none of the local craft breweries or food specialists could participate in this event. But they have always set up payment by card.

When the shopping part of the evening was done, we broke down and were done in 10 minutes. We made maybe a third of what we needed to in order to break even. And to say it offered us “exposure” is laughable.

As I always say when I’m offered “exposure” instead of payment for my work, “People die of exposure. Show me the cash.”

I’ve followed up on the timeline for the ad that was part of the package, so we’ll see if that’s of any use.

Other vendors with whom we spoke were unhappy, too. I don’t know of anyone who even made close to what it cost them to participate. Not to mention that vendors were treated like an inconvenience instead of as the engine driving the event.

I don’t feel the organizers lived up to the contract terms. My current client is certainly not going to participate next year. And, as a consultant, when asked by other clients about the value of participating, I will say, “None.”

I’ve participated in huge events, such as ABA (what is now Book Expo) and other Javits Center events in New York, and the Frankfurt Book Festival. I’ve attended holiday craft festivals and fairs all over the world, including locally.

Never have I participated in  or attended anything so poorly run where both vendors and attendees were treated as though they were an inconvenience. 

Every event with multiple moveable pieces is a challenge. But well-run events share the following:

—They value the vendors who participate;

—They value the attendees;

—Without both of the above, there is no event, and they know it.

—Communication is clear and channels are kept open;

—The vendor works with the same person or a limited number of people during the process;

—If changes are necessary in the parameters of the event, they are brought up as soon as the decision is made, with the option for the vendor to exit with a refund, not declared as a given only when questioned on the change as it becomes an impediment to the vendor or attendee’s participation;

—The organizers provide what is agreed in the contract;

—The organizers create a secure environment on multiple levels, without safety issues.

—The organizers actually solve problems on the floor during the event, rather than shrugging and basically telling everyone too bad for you.

I was right. It was a learning experience. And some of that experience is being fictionalized into an upcoming novel.

But it’s certainly an experience I do not intend to repeat in my actual life.

Ink-Dipped Advice: How To Lose A Customer

A few months back, a start-up that claimed to be dedicated to health and wellness offered me an invitation to an invitation to be one of the first subscribers to their new monthly box.

They sounded interesting, so I said yes, I’d like an invitation to the invitation.

I got on the mailing list, I got emails.

Then, the invitation came through. The same week that I had two deaths in 24 hours close to me, and was overwhelmed on many fronts. There was a flurry of emails, every day. The products were good, but not what I wanted at the time. I had questions about the pricing structure – the way the initial invite was worded, it looked like it would fluctuate, month-to-month.

Honestly, I couldn’t deal with it at the time. I put it aside and MADE THE CHOICE not to subscribe.

As a POTENTIAL customer, that was my right.

It was an INVITATION to an INVITATION. It was not a commitment.

About two weeks ago, I got an email from the company ATTACKING me for not subscribing, with language such as “did you not understand what we’re offering?” and further phrasing berating me for not subscribing. As though I was too stupid to understand the product.

As though they were supposed to be my priority, and as though I’d let them down.

No.

I understood the product. I CHOSE not to buy it. As is my right, in any such transaction.

I sent back a strongly worded email that not everything was about THEM, I was dealing with two deaths, and I’d never committed to purchase. I said I was interested in the invitation. I had the OPTION to buy or not buy, and I chose not to.

I unsubscribed from their mailing list.

I wanted an apology, although I knew I wouldn’t get one. I also realized that it wouldn’t matter. I wasn’t looking for anything free or a discount coupon. There was NOTHING they could say or do that would make me trust them with personal and/or financial information.

I also felt, that, as a supposed heath & wellness company, they were hypocrites.

Hmm — wellness meant THEIR well-being, not that of their customers. Got it. Moving on.

I understand that starting a small business is stressful. But this is not the way to woo potential customers.

I moved on and did other things. I have a subscription box already, with the wonderful, amazing, stunning Goddess Provisions, who always seems to know what I need and time the monthly box to arrive at the right time. For instance, the day after those two deaths, the Heart Chakra box arrived. It was exactly what I needed in that moment. Plus, they are kind and responsive and quick to answer questions or concerns.

I finally received a sort-of apology last week. The company stated they “didn’t mean” it to feel like an attack, and they understood it was an emotional time for me. If they didn’t mean for it to feel like an attack, then they shouldn’t have used phrasing that made it so.

I didn’t bother to respond.

While I know we all make mistakes and believe in second chances, I found the exchange revealing. Instead of actually supporting a potential customer going through a rough time, first they attacked, then they did nothing, then, weeks later, they sent a half-baked whatever it was.

Would a response within the standard 48-hour business protocol response time have changed anything? I don’t know. But a sincere response, instead of further defense, would have smoothed things over. Taking two weeks to respond, and then sending something mealy-mouthed didn’t cut it. Take responsibility. Work to fix it (which doesn’t necessarily mean offering something free )– just work on phrasing. As in maybe hire qualified writing/marketing people for your product and pay them fairly, instead of going off half-cocked and turning off your customers.

Not a way to run a business in my opinion.

Not a company I plan to spend my money with.

Does it make me more careful in my own interactions? I should hope I already am, but it also makes me remember not to send out a mass email in a moment of anger. The person who wrote/sent the email to non-subscribers felt angry and betrayed. Feelings are feelings, and valid. How you use them on other people is something to consider. Because there are consequences.

And perhaps, instead of sending something in a flash of emotion, you should have written it, taken a step back, a breath, and thought it through. Thought if, perhaps, there was a better way to entice those who had passed on the first opportunity you sent them. Where did it fall short for them? Was it only timing? Money? Content? Presentation? Ask for feedback. Don’t attack.

Frankly, that email should have remained in the “unsent letter” file that I learned when studying journals and their writers, and when I taught journal and diary writing. You write the letter to figure out your feelings. You use it as a tool to figure out positive ways to deal with the situation.

But it remains unsent, unless you are willing to burn that bridge.

As far as I’m concerned, the bridge is burned.

I wish them well, but I will not be one of their customers.

My conscious consumerism takes me elsewhere.

Thoughts? Comments? Anecdotes to share?